You could call it a revolution, or you could call it a trend, but something exciting is happening at the budget end of home theater. In the past you had to spend a lot of money to get great performance. But thanks to brands such as Elac, Pioneer and Vizio you don't have to spend thousands -- you barely have to spend hundreds.
At $150, the Vizio SB3621n-E8's sound belies its compact size and oh-so affordable price. We'd have high praise for this soundbar system even if it was double the price. It's easily the best sounding affordable sound bar we've heard to date.
There are no "features" to speak of, just a wireless subwoofer and Bluetooth, but at this price you don't really need any more than that. Alongside Google's Chromecast Audio, the Vizio SB3621n-E8 is now one of the best deals in home theater. You could even pair the two together, hook them up to a TCL Roku TV and you have a really cool wireless streaming AV system for about $500.
Stand aside Yamaha, JBL, Zvox and Polk: the Vizio SB3621 is now the go-to soundbar if you're paying anything under $300. This is the first soundbar we've ever reviewed that earned five stars, and easily deserves our Editors' Choice award.
36 inches of handsome
Given its crazy-affordable price you'd expect something to be wrong with the Vizio right? Maybe the sub is made of plywood or the remote looks like it came out of a gumball machine. But no, you wouldn't guess how cheap the soundbar was based on its build quality.
Place the Vizio soundbar alongside the similarly priced JBL Boost TV and there's no contest at all. The JBL looks inexpensive, but the Vizio imparts a quiet sense of style. As the model number suggests, this is a 36-inch wide soundbar, which is relatively compact, and its 2.1-inch height means it won't likely block your remote control from working.
The top of the unit features a minimum of controls. We found they could be a little sluggish but they're very useful if you lose the remote. At the front of the bar is Vizio's dreaded "display:" the volume level gauge is useful enough, but the series of dots it uses for input selection are nearly impenetrable. The remote control is a little confusing too, but at least it's a proper wand and not a plastic credit card like every other remote at the price.
The included wireless sub doesn't skimp on quality. It's a well-built black and silver shoebox that comes with a ported 5-inch woofer. This unit helps the entire system get down to a claimed 50Hz, which is plenty for a system of this size and price.
As far as connectivity the Vizio features two digital inputs -- a coaxial and an optical -- plus USB (for WAV playback and not MP3, strangely) and a 3.5mm jack. The soundbar also includes Bluetooth connectivity. It will decode both the vanilla versions of Dolby and DTS Dolby Digital and provides DTS sound modes instead of decoding, which is a little weird.
Getting acquainted with the Vizio SB3621n-E8 was a painless process, mostly a matter of plugging in the optical digital cable from our Oppo BDP-105 Blu-ray player, fine-tuning the soundbar/subwoofer balance with the sub volume control, and adjusting the bass and treble controls, via the remote. We tweaked those balances from time to time as we played one movie to the next and with music . The SB3621n-E8 is a snap to use.
Unfortunately with bass-heavy movies we became aware of the little subwoofer as a separate source of sound. Ideally all of the system's sound should seem to come from the soundbar itself. We placed the sub closer, right next to the soundbar and that helped improve the blend between sub and soundbar somewhat. It wasn't ideal, but it was better.
The speaker may be just 36 inches wide, but the SB3621n-E8 projected a wall-to-wall soundstage in the CNET listening room. The sound of Vizio's TruSurround processing was too bright, however so we didn't use it much; the plain simulated surround mode sounded fine.
The little subwoofer had no trouble dishing out deep bass, and when played at moderate volume levels bass definition was entirely decent. Dialogue was naturally balanced, and music of all genres sounded better than we get from soundbars that cost a lot more than the SB3621. We've tested a large number of soundbars over the years, but this one is a game changer, it's that good for the price.
Of course, we could make the sub misbehave by playing World War II films like "Hacksaw Ridge" really loud. The sub's woofer tried its best to keep up, but the bass thickened and turned muddy. Turning down the volume to a somewhat more moderate level restored the SB3821's composure. Afterward the battle scenes' visceral dynamics, explosions and artillery blasts packed a wallop that far exceeded what we heard from the more expensive Yamaha YAS-106 and Zvox SB380 soundbar systems.
To be fair those two 'bars don't feature external subwoofers, so they couldn't muster the low-bass impact of the SB3621, but they were also less clear overall than the Vizio. And to be really fair, the Vizio is cheaper than both.
We next played a few Radiohead and White Stripes tracks from the "From The Basement" DVD, from the UK live music TV series. The sound of this 2008 recording is absolutely superb, so Radiohead's intricate textures came alive, and Thom Yorke's vocals were spot-on. Turning up the heat with the White Stripes music, the Zvox SB380 flattened the band's hard rock power; returning to the SB3621 brought it back.
When we compared the SB3621 with Yamaha's YAS-106 soundbar with stereo music files of Rosanne Cash's "The River & The Thread" album, the SB3621 did sound tonally thinner than the YAS-106. The Yamaha had a richer and warmer balance, but sounded a little muffled compared with the livelier and clearer SB3621. That said, we can imagine some listeners might prefer the YAS-106's sweeter, more laid-back sound with music and movies.
Should you buy it?
If you're in this price range for a soundbar, you absolutely should.
The Vizio SB3621 has a lot going for it, and not just its incredibly low price. The 'bar is smaller than average, and the wireless sub is one of the smallest we've ever tested in a soundbar system. That's all good, but it was the SB3621's sound that clinched the deal: It's clear, clean and dynamic, with satisfyingly deep bass. This system sounds equally good with music and movies. If it fits your budget, and you have room for the separate subwoofer, the SB3621 is the number one soundbar to get.